This year, Merge Records is celebrating their 25th anniversary with a 45 subscription series, a 25k race, and a reissue of a classic Merge album every month. Considering Merge’s back catalog, that’s a pretty fantastic way to get acquainted, or reacquainted, with some of the best music of the last 20 years.
Kicking off the reissue series is Lambchop’s Nixon, originally released in 2000 and a diamond in the rough that has never been pressed to wax. It’s not the most obvious choice; Lambchop has never been one of the label’s more popular bands. They have a solid fan base overseas, and are highly lauded, legendary even, at indie record stores in their Nashville hometown and around the country. But Merge’s method has always been to release great records, whether they sell millions or hundreds, and they’ve stood by the perpetually underrated Lambchop since the beginning.
Nixon is the band’s fifth album, and a great entry point into the band’s catalog. Never a band with strict membership policies, by this point in their career Lambchop was rolling 14 members deep, filling in songs with lush strings, horns, slide guitar, banjo, and whatever else they could catch hold of. As the band kept ballooning, the original alt-country sound they started from began to absorb whole new genres and influences. It could have been a mess, but it’s not: Nixon’s arrangement feels classic and complete, while still being all over the place.
Lead singer/guitarist Kurt Wagner’s voice is generally low and calm, like he’s sitting next to you singing a lullaby, complementing the mellow arrangements on tracks like opener “The Old Gold Shoe” and “Nashville Parent.” Verse after verse of smart lyrics give a little wink and smile with their cleverness. Echoes of funk and soul, as well as Wagner’s rarely used, strange falsetto, pop up on “Grumpus” and “What Else Could It Be,” while a gospel choir help make “Up with People” a grand spectacle, and the pinnacle song of the band’s long career.
Over the course of the record, things start off sedately enough, and the narrative threads wind toward a happy peak. But that’s just the middle of the album—a point made more apparent in the vinyl’s two-sided incarnation than on the original CD—and the album slides southward from there, eventually ending in the darkest of places. It’s laid out perfectly that way, with ups and downs feeling like you’re floating in a sea where things are starting to get worse. Jack Probst